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Repeating: views on grade retention.
Article Type:
Children (Educational aspects)
Education (Canada)
Education (Management)
Education (Standards)
Education (Laws, regulations and rules)
Powell, Pamela Jane
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Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 2
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Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada

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The call for accountability in U.S. schools is gaining intensity. The emergence of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the high dropout rate, and media reports of declining test scores fuel claims that children are not achieving, and that schools do not do enough to ensure that achievement. The resulting rhetoric pits grade retention against social promotion, as if they were the only options. What is wrong with this tired view of schooling? Is grade retention really a viable intervention that can ensure a child's academic achievement? If not, what are the alternatives?

What School Looks Like

Children come to school to learn. In kindergarten, they begin to acquire the skills needed to move up the educational ladder. At the end of kindergarten, those children who have the requisite skills move on to 1st grade, and this pattern continues as the child progresses through the grades. This structure seems logical, linear, and commonsensical. However, this entrenched line of thinking has shallow roots, as we examine the history of education and the research that has been conducted in regard to this movement, or lack of movement, upward through the age-graded system.

The age-graded system, which segregates students by age, is the most common structure for schools in the United States. It was introduced by Horace Mann, who brought the model from Prussia and implemented it in the mid 1800s at the Quincy Grammar School in Boston, Massachusetts. Textbooks became associated with curricula for grade levels and that, it seems, laid the groundwork for a rudimentary standards movement. Children were promoted to higher grade levels on the basis of their mastery of the affiliated skills.

This model is the only one that most people in the United States have ever known. In fact, because most people have known this system from the inside out, they feel comfortable making judgments about the system. Politicians, parents, and the media often rate schools poorly and offer much advice for improving the quality of schools. Consequently, students are trundled through the system as if they are products on an assembly line. Yet, the reality is far more complicated.

All Things Are Not Equal

First, let us analyze how children are typically admitted to school in any given year. If the cut-off date (by birthdate) is September 1st, for example, then children can enter the grade if they have their fifth birthday at any time from September 1st of the previous year to August 31st of the school entry year. Given that this span of a year accounts for a huge percentage of a kindergartner's lifetime, when progress and development are marked in months, not by years, you begin to realize the vast differences that may exist among these 5-year-olds. Also realize that many children are overage for grade, including children who are academically redshirted or those who have been held back in grade. This further divides a classroom chronologically.

Chronology is but one factor. Consider the different domains--cognitive, affective, physical, and social--that reside within each child. All of these factors impact the child and his ability to operate within a school setting.

Now, contemplate language development. Again taking into consideration the age differences within any given classroom, the stages of language development also will be varied. Children's expressive vocabulary, ability to articulate needs and ideas, and aptitude to converse socially are uneven. Add to this the reality that most children in the United States are asked to perform academically and socially in English, which may not be their first language. These English language learners are learning a new language, may be adjusting to a new culture, and are trying to become attuned to school.

A class of 24 kindergartners further separates when we take into consideration that some children will have developmental delays, some will have learning differences, and some will have separation anxiety and/or other issues that inhibit their abilities to engage in the school experience.

The accountability movement has thrust incredible responsibility on teachers and students to perform in spite of this diversity. While accountability is necessary, the way in which accountability is measured and what is done with this information can be disturbing.

High-stakes tests in the United States often determine whether students will be promoted or graduate.

Many states have instituted policies prohibiting children from promotion if they do not achieve a minimum score on an achievement test. It seems intuitive that if students have not mastered content, they should not be able to move forward. Holding children back in grade, it is thought, will allow them time to mature and/or acquire the needed skills and knowledge to provide a foundation for success. Again, the reality is more complicated.

Holding Children Back: Grade Retention

Children who are held back and denied the ability to be promoted with their peers--being retained in grade--are most commonly kept back due to academic or socioemotional reasons. A significant proportion of these children are male, young for grade, small for age, of color, and/or living in poverty conditions.

Researchers have studied grade retention since the early part of the 20th century. Keyes (1911) conducted a longitudinal study that examined "accelerates," students who were promoted, and "arrests," those who were retained. This seven-year study suggested that 21% of the repeaters did better after repeating the grade and 39% did worse. Interestingly, he also noted that "arrest is most likely to follow too early or too late entrance to school" (Keyes, 1911, p. 62). His research indicated that almost 25% of pupils were retained at some point during grades I through 9. He also cited a tendency for students to leave school after the 8th grade, rather than risk repeating a grade.

In an early experimental study, Klene and Branson (1929) examined students who were potential repeaters and then assigned to promotion or retention based on chronological age, mental age, and gender. They concluded that promoted students benefited more than those who were retained.

In 1933, Caswell looked at the current retention research of the time in his study titled Non-Promotion in Elementary Schools. He concluded that "non-promotion is a type of failure that tends to deaden, disillusion and defeat the child" (p. 81).

Arthur (1936) studied the achievement of 60 grade-1 pupils who repeated a grade, using a pre- and post-test design. She determined that "the average repeater of the group studied learned no more in two years than did the average non-repeater of the same mental age in one year" (p. 205), echoing the results of Klene and Branson (1929).

Goodlad (1954) conducted a comparative study of the effects of promotion and non-promotion on social and personal adjustment. He found that the children who were not promoted did not thrive as well as their promoted counterparts when compared with their own class groups.

In 1975, Jackson "provided the first systematic, comprehensive overview of the research evidence on the effects of grade retention" (Jimerson, 2001, p. 421). Jackson concluded that "there is no reliable body of evidence to indicate that grade retention is more beneficial than grade promotion for students with serious academic or adjustment difficulties" (1975, p. 627). Still, the practice continued.

Holmes and Matthews (1984) conducted another seminal piece of research examining the effects of retention on elementary and junior high school students' achievement and socioemotional outcomes. They concluded that promoted students fared better than their retained counterparts, stating that "those who continue to retain pupils do so despite cumulative research evidence showing that the potential for negative effects consistently outweighs positive outcomes" (Holmes & Matthews, 1984, p. 232). Five years later, Holmes added 19 more studies to the original meta-analysis conducted by Holmes and Matthews. Out of a total of 63 empirical studies, only nine yielded positive results (Holmes, 1989). Despite yet another admonition regarding the practice and a track record of over 50 years of inconclusive research at that time, grade retention continued.

In his subsequent meta-analysis, Jimerson (2001) explained that the previous review and meta-analyses indicate an "absence of empirical evidence" to support the practice of retention. Jimerson's study summarized much of the research regarding retention executed in the 20th century.

While research regarding the efficacy of grade retention has provided mixed results, the existing theory regarding grade retention is that it is probably ineffective as a strategy to improve academic achievement or increase personal adjustment (Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson, 2001). This option has been researched for almost a century, and few clear-cut benefits are evident (Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975; Jimerson, 2001). Yet, the practice persists.

Grade Retention and Dropout

One of the most reported consequences of student retention is its correlation with subsequent dropout. Children who are retained have a higher incidence of dropout (Grissom & Shepard, 1989; Roderick, 1994; Rumberger, 1995). Anderson, Whipple, and Jimerson (2002) found "retention to be one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout, with retained students 2 to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school than promoted students" (Anderson, Whipple, & Jimerson, 2002, p. 2). In fact, Rumberger (1995) indicates that retention is the strongest predictor of subsequent dropout.

Shepard and Smith (1989) also state that "large-scale surveys of dropouts and graduates reveal that substantially more dropouts than graduates have at some time in their career been retained in grade" (p. 215). Roderick (1994) concluded that "repeating a grade from kindergarten to sixth grade was associated with a substantial increase in the odds of dropping out" (p. 729). In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in 1995 that individuals who are retained are almost twice as likely to drop out than those who have never been retained. Males were two-thirds more likely to be retained than females, and retention rates increased from 1992 to 1995.

Similarly, Frymier (1997) reported that those that have been retained in grade are about twice as likely to drop out as those who were never retained. Additionally, those who were retained had more difficulty in every risk area examined in his descriptive, comparative study. Jimerson and Ferguson (2007) again examined the efficacy of the practice of grade retention and noted, "The association of grade retention and high school dropout is disconcerting and seems to be the most common deleterious outcome during adolescence" (p. 334). This leads to a critical question--of the over six million students who dropped out in 2007 (Center for Labor Market Studies, 2009), how many were retained in grade? This outcome associated with the practice of grade retention has far-reaching ramifications, both for the individual and society.

If Not Retention, Then What?

There is no question that interventions (other than grade retention) are needed to help all children succeed in school. We need fresh alternatives and new ways of thinking about children.

Consider the following: Children do not develop neatly in all domains and, especially, not simultaneously. The complexity of the individual is incalculable, and children in any given classroom may vary by age and by ability across domains. All children will not and should not be on the same page at the same time, and children should be met where they are, not where we think they should be.

Such issues as language development affect learning, and teachers should expect skill and knowledge acquisition to differ from child to child. By recognizing that children may be highly skilled and knowledgeable in one area and have gaps in another, and still believing that each child can succeed, teachers may capitalize on the strengths of each child and scaffold learning.

Furthermore, learning in the early childhood years is vastly different than in later years, and children may make leaps in their development, because learning does not only occur incrementally. As has been often stated, schools must be ready for children just as much as children should be ready for school.

Finally, it is important to look at viable interventions. The system of grade retention intervention, at a cost of approximately $18 billion per year (Xia & Glennie, 2005), does not guarantee subsequent school success and has been linked to later high school dropout. Surely, other interventions could promote success and prevent some of the negative consequences of grade retention, and perhaps at a fraction of the cost.

Such alternatives can include greater early assessment and interventions in the early childhood years prior to schooling and substantive interventions in the early grades. Flexible time lines can be employed for skill, language, and knowledge acquisition with enrichment programs for all children, to enhance their experiences and provide rich language opportunities. Furthermore, we should ditch the deficit model of learning and instead provide opportunities for mastery and success while honoring development, which may be uneven across domains, and look at multiple options for schooling, such as multiage classrooms (Stone, 2009), in order to implement true systemic change.

Leaving Children Behind

The act of grade retention may keep children behind. Decades of research have been inconclusive regarding the benefits of the practice, with much of the research pointing to its detriments. It is time to employ the whole world of a child when helping him learn and succeed. The family, the school, and the community can assist in uncovering and maximizing the potential of every child.


Anderson, G., Whipple, A., & Jimerson, S. (2002, November). Grade retention: Achievement and mental health outcomes. Communique 31(3), handout pages 1-3.

Arthur, G. (1936). A study of the achievement of sixty grade I repeaters as compared with that of non-repeaters of the same mental age. The Journal of Experimental Education, 5(2), 203-205.

Caswell, H. L. (1933). Non-promotion in elementary schools. Nashville, TN: George Peabody College for Teachers. Center for Labor Market Studies. (2009). Left behind: The nation's dropout crisis. Retrieved from www.clms.neu. edu/publication/documents/CLMS_2009_Dropout_Report.pdf

Frymier, J. (1997). Characteristics of students retained in grade. The High School Journal, 80(3), 184-192.

Goodlad, J. (1954). Some effects of promotion and nonpromotion upon the social and personal adjustment of children. Journal of Experimental Education, 22, 301-328.

Grissom, J. B., & Shepard, L.A. (1989). Repeating and dropping out of school. In L. A. Shepard & M. L. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 34-63). London: Falmer Press.

Holmes, C.T. (1989). Grade level retention effects: A meta-analysis of research studies. In L. A. Shepard & M. L. Smith (Eds.), Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention (pp. 16-33). London: Falmer Press.

Holmes, C. T., & Matthews, K.M. (1984). The effects of nonpromotion on elementary and junior high pupils: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 54(2), 225-236.

Jackson, G. (1975). The research evidence on the effects of grade retention. Review of Educational Research, 45, 613-635.

Jimerson, S. (2001). Meta-analysis of grade retention research: Implications for practice in the 21st century. School Psychology Review, (30)3, 420-437.

Jimerson, S. R., & Ferguson, P. (2007). A longitudinal study of grade retention: Academic and behavioral outcomes of retained students through adolescence. School Psychology Quarterly, 22(3), 314-339.

Keyes, C. (1911). Progress through the grades of city schools. New York: AMS Press.

Klene, V., & Branson, E. (1929). Trial promotion versus failure. Educational Research Bulletin, 8, 6-11.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1995). Dropout rates in the United States: Grade retention. Retrieved from

Roderick, M. (1994). Grade retention and school dropout: Investigating the association. American Educational Research Journal, 31(4), 729-759.

Rumberger, R. W. (1995). Dropping out of middle school: Analysis of students and schools. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 583-625.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M.L. (1989). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention. London: Falmer Press.

Stone, S. (2009). Multiage in the era of NCLB. Center for Evaluation and Education Policy: Education Policy Brief,, 7(1), 5.

Xia, C., & Glennie, E. (2005). Grade retention: The gap between research and practice. Durham, NC: Duke University, Center for Child and Family Policy, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

Pamela Jane Powell is Assistant Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona.
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